Share in a comfort food feast at Cairo Café
Dessert offerings include a syrupy semolina cake, called basbousa, and a shockingly orange cheese pastry with shredded phyllo.
You're part of the family now, too," Amani Qulali, the striking, utterly amiable chef of Café Cairo, assured us as we waited for our check. She'd already helped herself to the empty seat at our table, asked our names and, like a wryly suspicious mother, suggested we didn't like the dishes we hadn't eaten every lick of. Then she laughed when we patted our rounded stomachs. Earlier, she'd held court with the entire dining room, lavishing us with stories of her birthplace, Kuwait, her adopted homeland Egypt and all the colorful sights we could encounter on a cruise down the Nile. Part of the family, indeed.
But sitting down to our meal an hour and a half earlier, we weren't exactly feeling welcomed by relatives. Maybe relatives who hadn't expected guests? Minutes passed with little attention from the wait staff, who, to be fair, were busy serving another party that pretty much filled what was left of this tiny international eatery on Lafayette Road. But would they ever take care of us?
Suddenly, steaming bowls of lentil soup arrived, along with traditional pita and a full plate of a crêpe-like flatbread layered with sweet green onions. But we hadn't ordered or even cracked open a menu. Nonetheless, we dove in. The soup was a creamy, well-seasoned broth that, despite some curiously scarce noodles, made a perfect elixir for a late-winter night.
Only then did our waiter, Qulali's brother, take our drink orders. From a list of beverages all available from the market, we chose hot tea and curious non-alcoholic beers flavored peach and raspberry that were quite refreshing with malty undertones. On the heels of the soup came two big dishes of hummus and baba ghanoush, both with plenty of garlic and lemon. Suddenly realizing we were less at a restaurant than a friend's house, we sat back and let the dishes emanate almost mystically from the kitchen.
If you've been to The Luxor in Fountain Square or its predecessor Café Trevi, the scene here might be strangely familiar. It's no wonder, given that Qulali, whose coursework at IUPUI was in economics, honed her skills at both of these quaint eateries. But she's made Café Cairo her own, turning what was the eccentric and cluttered Holyland Halal Meats into one of the spiffiest Middle Eastern eateries in the city. She worked from August to December to get this place the way she wanted, modernizing the kitchen and updating the market. Beyond the dining room, flanked with bright red cloths, lurk well-stocked shelves of dried beans and spices and humming cases of cheese and meats delivered fresh several times a week.
Having made short work of our complimentary appetizers, we were finally presented a "menu" of sorts, though only in verbal form - as if the kitchen's secrets couldn't be written down. Specials for the evening included a mixed grill plate and two traditional Egyptian dishes: koshary and kefta. Since choice wasn't exactly the theme of the evening, we asked for one of each. As with any good dinner party, we'd get a taste of everything this family kitchen had to offer.
If you've not dined on Egyptian food, at least Qulali's version of it, you're in for one of the most comforting dining experiences. The mixed grill ($10.99) included a wonderfully tender chicken kebab glowing with a hint of curry as well as a flavorful ground beef skewer and a mound of rice crowned with wee meatballs in a rich sauce. Koshary ($8.99) had a sort of sophisticated casserole quality to it with rice, lentils and macaroni (in case two starches weren't enough) topped both with crisp caramelized onions and a spicy, vinegary tomato sauce. Qulali's version of kefta ($9.99) combined beef and bulgur with a whiff of sweet spices - perhaps allspice or cinnamon, though Qulali wasn't telling.
By the time desserts had arrived and we'd sunk our forks into a syrupy semolina cake and a shockingly orange cheese pastry with shredded phyllo, Qulali was leading us in our language lessons for the day. "All right everyone, let's practice the names of the food," she said, then accentuated the cool "oo" of "basbousa," the name of the former sweet. We would not long forget this meal - or the names of some of the dishes.
Just to make sure, however, we went back on a Friday for an unprecedented buffet lunch. For a mere $9.99, Café Cairo lays out a banquet of such eclectic comestibles as chicken gizzard stew, chicken legs baked with raisins and crushed almonds, tangy balls of herbed labneh (fresh yogurt cheese) and a milky bread pudding called "om ali." Just to make sure we knew we're part of the family, however, a quite attentive waitress brought out no less than four additional dishes, such as Egyptian beef and stuffed grape leaves. When you're a member of this "family," you'd better know how to eat.
3047 Lafayette Road
Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; 5-9 p.m.
Friday: 1-9 p.m.
Saturday: 2-9 p.m.
Food : 4 Stars
Atmosphere : 3.5 Stars
Service : 3.5 Stars